Caspar Weinberger's In the Arena

Edwin Black - History News Network - 2002

Edwin Black is the author of the international bestseller IBM and the Holocaust.

In the Arena [Regnery], Casper Weinberger's plain prose memoir generally devoid of emotion recounts the 20th century as it intersected the events of his life.

In the very first chapter, Weinberger bluntly lays to rest the assumption that he was raised Jewish, recounting that both his father and grandfather were indifferent to any religion dating back to a synagogue quarrel in Bohemia three generations earlier. Weinberger was instead influenced by his mother's interest in the Episcopalian Church. Later, during his Harvard days, he became an active Episcopalian, confessing that his"faith in God has been an enormous influence and comfort all my life."

Weinberger's intense interest in things military started with his"illegal" attempt to join the RAF in 1941 to fight Germany before the US joined the war. (He was turned down because of bad eyesight.) Later, he did enlist in the army, serving in the South Pacific. There he met an army nurse, Jane, who would become his wife. Weinberger tells how his World War II service was invaluable training for when he became secretary of defense in 1981."In particular, I was stuck by the terrible lack of foresight that had left America so unprepared (in 1941)-materially, psychologically, and in trained manpower-for war. . . In 1981, I saw that, again, we had basically the same shortages of equipment and qualified personnel at the height of the Cold War."

Weinberger's memoir is a delightful biographical mix, recalling meetings with the most important figures of the 20th century as well as the smallest details of life in Washington. For instance, he tells how, when he and Jane moved into a yellow townhouse in the Capitol Hill area of Washington, they were informed by a district"outreach" office that by virtue of what block they lived on, they were eligible to collect welfare and were urged to apply! That first day, Jane had hired someone to help unpack boxes. So when a young woman rang the doorbell they put her to work unpacking, only to discover later that she was Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio sent to get the first exclusive interview with the New FTC head.

Laced throughout the book is Weinberger's immense devotion to and admiration of Ronald Reagan, whom he credits with winning the Cold War. The turning point, Weinberger writes, was"when President Reagan, in perhaps his most major violation of conventional wisdom, blatantly told the world that Communism was an Evil Empire." It was of course, Weinberger, as Secretary of Defense, who built up America's military might to show the Soviets that Reagan meant business.

An exception to the emotionless telling of his life is Chapter 18,"The Nightmare Year," in which Weinberger laments the"horribly debilitating" toll of his indictment by the special prosecutor during the Iran-Contra debacle. Weinberger insists President Reagan was totally unaware of the conspiracy. The personal humiliation for Weinberger and his family, and the financial toll in legal bills is retold mincing no words."No American should ever be subject to such an untrammeled prosecutorial assault. America needs to be as vigilant about its domestic rule of law and the rights of defendants as it is about its national defense . . . Zealots should never be given an opportunity to abuse unlimited power, as the independent counsel did in the Iran-Contra case," concludes Weinberger. Yet in an interview, Weinberger adamantly rejected any sympathy for Bill Clinton's investigation by Ken Starr."Clinton brought it all upon himself and was basically guilty," Weinberger said.

Ironically, one major episode omitted from Weinberger's life story, is his pivotal involvement with the Jonathan Pollard spy case. Weinberger was called upon by the Judge to assess the damage Pollard did to national security. In our interview, Weinberger was asked why he skipped the incident. Weinberger casually replied,"Because it was, in a sense, a very minor matter, but made very important." Asked to elaborate, Weinberger repeated,"As I say, the Pollard matter was comparatively minor. It was made far bigger than its actual importance." Pressed on why the case was made far bigger than its actual importance, Weinberger replied,"I don't know why-it just was."

Weinberger states in his preface that his book was not intended as an academic tome or policy statement, just a simple telling of a life from his personal point of view. That he has done.

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